Can the Iranian nuclear deal be saved?

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At the top of the Group of 20, the United States and its allies said they were “convinced that it is possible“To bring everyone back into compliance with the Iranian nuclear deal.

It was the latest attempt by Western governments to salvage the deal, formally known as the Comprehensive joint action plan (PACG). And now, at least, there’s a date to maybe start making it happen: November 29, when the talks in Vienna will resume.

Signed in 2015 by Iran, the United States and the rest of the P5 + 1 countries (China, Russia, United Kingdom, France and Germany), the JCPOA has set limits to the Iranian nuclear program such that the country would not be able to create a nuclear weapon for the duration of the agreement. Tehran agreed to allow independent international inspectors to verify that it complied with the terms (such as limits on uranium enrichment and Cintriguing.) In return, the other signatories eased the global economic sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear activities, which had pushed the Iranian economy to the brink.

The PACG it seemed to achieve its goal of reducing Iran’s nuclear program. But former President Donald Trump, who called the deal a “disaster, “He promised to leave, and followed in 2018.

Trump paired his unilateral withdrawal with overwhelming sanctions, starting a long run of years. “Max pressure“Campaign. In the beginning, Iran remained in the agreement and followed its terms, with the European allies of the United States trying to keep it together. But in 2019, Iran started violating the agreement, and has since stepped up its nuclear program, overstepping the limits of its supply of low-enriched uranium and other provisions. (Iran says he doesn’t want a nuclear weapon, but it’s getting closer to possibility that he can make one.)

Biden has said since his campaign that he wants to restore the deal, but efforts to do so have largely stalled. At the beginning of his administration, Biden’s candidates signaled that the United States was in no hurry to do something. The talks began in April between Tehran and other parties to the agreement (the United States indirectly participated), where at least some progress has been made. But discussions they were suspended in June immediately after the election of Ebrahim Raisi, the most uncompromising new Iranian president.

The negotiation will resume at the end of the month. The goal of any interview is to bring both sides down – Iran stops doing things like … create nuclear fuel in fast next-generation centrifuges; the United States to lift sanctions, such as those on Iran’s energy sector and anyone who trades with it, and achieve what diplomats and negotiators like to call “mutual respect”.

And Tehran may want another thing that may be extraordinarily difficult to offer: a guarantee that it won’t all go away if another guy … or the same guy again – becomes president of the United States.

The revival of the JCPOA will face tough odds. Iran has signaled that it is returning to the table, so it is already something. The statements to the G-20, by the Europeans and the United States, are also a beautiful demonstration of unity. But those are little patches of severely broken political trust between Washington and Tehran.

The current state of play of the agreement with Iran

The US goal is to “rapidly reach and implement an understanding on a mutual return to compliance” at the JCPOA, State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week. On Thursday, Price said this will put Iran’s nuclear program back “in the box it has been in for several years after the agreement was implemented in 2016”.

Critics of the Iran nuclear deal have often harshly criticized the deal because it failed to address Iran’s other malicious activities, like its ballistic missile program and its interference from and support for prosecutors in the region. When it comes to “lengthening and strengthening the deal,” the United States he said he wants everyone to return to that mutual compliance first, so the JCPOA will deal, as it did before, only with Iran’s nuclear activities. Some experts think a re-establishment of the JCPOA will be a starting point for greater cooperation, or at least a victory for non-proliferation, while Iran’s regional adventures are covered in other forums. But the Biden administration continues to sanction Iran for things, including a recent batch related to its drone program, a sign that the United States continues to keep the pressure high.

For Iran, it may have hesitated to return to negotiations to try to build its influence while continuing its nuclear program. The United States, meanwhile, has exhausted much of its influence. Choked Iran with sanctions (although, again, it is still adding to them), and although Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last weekend that “every option is on the table, “It seems unlikely that the administration has an appetite for more military intervention in the region. And while sanctions are crushing Iran, the the country is resisting the pressure to a certain extent.

President Joe Biden speaks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Rome on October 31.
Evan Vucci / AP

If leverage is the goal, then the big question ahead of any new talks is what, exactly, Iran might want. “There is an assumption that this [Raisi] the administration will take a maximalist approach to the negotiations, “said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR).

That “maximalist” approach is a kind of nice way to say that Tehran could do it a request that is a non-starter for the United States, something like pushing for more sanction relief beyond what its nuclear program involves, or asking the United States to offer economic support or a suspension of sanctions first.

Iran will likely argue that the US blew the deal, and Tehran remained compliant for a year, so it is up to the US to prove it is acting in good faith. But that line is a little tired now that Iran has also definitively violated the agreement. “Both sides are now very far from respecting the agreement. So it makes sense for both sides to take incremental steps to get back to the deal, “said Samuel Hickey, a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a non-partisan nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the gun threat. nuclear.

Even if Iran does not become fully maximalist, the exact aspect of sanctions reduction, and how it will work, will be an important part of making these negotiations work. Alex Vatanka, Middle East Institute Iran Program Director, said the sanctions relief promised by the JCPOA in 2015 was not fully respected for Iran. “What they actually found was that the threat of American punishment still loomed over their heads. On paper, they could trade with the world, “he said.” In fact, companies, and many countries, have still kept their distance from Iran. “Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the same. : Iran wants sanctions to be not just on paper, but but “in practice”.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called for an end to US sanctions against Iran in a pre-recorded video at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 21.
Michael Nagle / Bloomberg via Getty Images

That first request could be further complicated by a second: a kind of guarantee that this agreement can withstand internal US political changes. Opposition to the agreement with Iran remains, especially among the Republicans; as Senator Ted Cruz recently tweeted about the Iran deal: “It is 100% certain that any future Republican president will tear him apart.” This issue of US credibility is a real challenge, as it is not something the US can easily accomplish, even if the Biden administration would like to do so. So the threat of US sanctions still looms.

This also works in favor of Iran, which can use it as a club in any negotiation. As a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry he answered to Cruz’s tweet: “Onus is on @POTUS to convince the international community, including all JCPOA attendees, that his signature means something.”

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and Middle East nuclear policy and security specialist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, said Iran could make it through by reducing its nuclear program, but when it comes to assurances that the United States will not withdraw, “The US delegation cannot give any guarantees.”

All of this will be difficult to overcome. Experts said the US and its European partners may need to offer quick relief from sanctions, but also find a mechanism to reassure the rest of the world and financial institutions that it is indeed right to do business with Iran. Vatanka said the “silver bullet” would be the American buy-in, even by US firms, which would be an important signal when it came to the “practical” part.

Batmanghelidj, at the ECFR, said Western governments have gotten a “fast track” from the failures of implementing the JCPOA and attempts to mitigate Trump’s unilateral sanctions. And this can counterintuitively help the negotiations. (European countries have tried to create an alternative solution to Trump’s sanctions, but it hasn’t done much.) The United States and other countries may be prepared for pitfalls that they weren’t before, and could potentially find ways to try to make the reduction of sanctions more robust and more lasting.

However, there are no guarantees for what could happen in 2024. Some experts believe it may still be in Iran’s interest to take even a temporary break from sanctions, and then use that time to prepare in case another skeptic about the Iran deal ends in The White House and sanctions are reintroduced.

It may be in Iran’s interest, but Iran itself may not see it that way. “Iran is in the driver’s seat,” said Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. Iran doesn’t really seem that interested in returning to the deal, or even getting sanctions lifted.

“They have found a way around the sanctions, at least to the extent that they can stay afloat and manage the crisis that the sanctions have imposed on the country,” he said. In the meantime, they didn’t have to sacrifice or compromise in any other way; strategically, or militarily, or in terms of foreign policy, “Ostovar said.

Iran resisted the “maximum pressure” campaign, even as it aggravated the economic pain for Iran and its people. The country could try to see if it can stall a little longer, continuing to advance its regional interests and ambitions, and the nuclear program that Europeans and the US still want to downsize.

And if that’s the case, these November talks may not provide the so-called “mutual compliance” with the JCPOA that the parties say they want.

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